Recently in Round the World '09 Category

Round the World in May '09

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Ten months from now, we're off on our most ridiculous trip to date.  The itinerary is dizzying, but the stops are exciting, and the airline seats in between all lay flat.  The stops are: Paris (24 hours), Amman (4 days), Tel Aviv (24 hours), Entebbe (6 days), and Osaka/Kyoto (3 days).  Why not?

And of course there aren't non-stop flights between all these cities, so the frequent flyer award looks something like this:

rtw

Quite the bargain at 130K miles each in business class on an AAdvantage oneworld Award--the finest award out there, and because of that it will be discontinued at the end of August.  So, props to big brother for spotting me some miles to get this booked before it's gone!

The on the ground itinerary is pretty well sketched out, but nothing actually booked just yet.  Gorilla tracking in both Uganda and Rwanda is no doubt the primary objective, but horseback riding in the Jordanian desert shouldn't be too shabby, either.  Topped off by some onsen in Kyoto.

And that's probably all there is to say for the next nine months or so.  As I mentioned before, all attention is on Mackinac Island next weekend...

RTW '09 Update

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It's been since July since this trip was mentioned, so it seemed time for an update with mundane details.

I was just updating my spreadsheet for this trip—it's got all our flight/hotel details, as well as financials.  I'm attempting to forecast/record every penny that might be spent/already spent.  It's all rather disturbing/obsessive to look at, but it's also fun to have PivotTables telling me the average cost of accommodations by country and such.

Over the last eight months our flights have been booked, there have been small schedule changes here and there.  Nothing more than fifteen minutes one way or another—no big deal.  Just as I was thinking about how fortunate we'd been on that front, we got hit by a bigger schedule change last week…

Royal Jordanian cancelled our planned Amman to Tel Aviv flight—so the 24 hours we had in Jerusalem turned into 12 hours.  Enough time for dinner and a night's sleep.  Oh well—the reason we were going to Israel for such a short period was for flight logistics reasons.  And getting to spend more time in Jordan shouldn't be much of a punishment.

Last month we also had to swap our planned horseback riding in Wadi Rum, Jordan to camelback riding with a different outfitter.  A very negative trip report on the planned horseback guide made us skittish. 

Otherwise at this point, we've got the basic travel logistics pretty well locked down.  It's all terribly complicated, so fingers crossed things actually work somewhat as planned come game time!

A few stats related to this trip:

---17 flights on 9 airlines—Northwest, Finnair, Iberia, Royal Jordanian, Malev Hungarian, British Airways, Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and ol' Alaska.

---35,488 total miles to be flown.  <gulp>  (the circumference of the equator is ~25K miles)

---14 different beds—running the spectrum, from: friends in Paris, a tent in the Jordanian desert, Ugandan guesthouses, a Le Meridien, and traditional Japanese ryokans.

---3 continents, 8 currencies, and 9 passport stamps—Finland, France, Jordan, Israel, Hungary, Uganda, Rwanda, Japan, and Canada.  (We won't leave the airport transiting London, Madrid, and Hong Kong.)

Things kick off on May 13 on a redeye to Detroit.  Probably not a lot else to say before then on this matter, but on paper we've got a surprisingly reliable stream of wifi throughout the trip to post updates here.  Though despite having unlocked my iPhone to use foreign SIM cards, there will still be no Twitter updating.

Until our next intra-Northwest excursion...

And Away We Go…

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The first 24 hours of the trip has involved a lot of food and flying.  Lillie and I got off to a rough start from Seattle when her upgrade to DTW cleared and mine did not.  :(  I got over it, and we are friends again now.

This whole trip is pretty silly, but this first leg is one I always hate to explain because it looks so dumb on paper.  First, we flew SEA-DTW-PHL on Northwest with little fanfare.  We hopped in our tiny Kia rental from Hertz and went to John's Roast Pork for a 9:30am cheesesteak (good, but not near as good as the Dalessandro's on my last trip).  The place has never seen so much Patagonia.  We did not blend in.

We then drove to up to NYC to catch a 5:40pm flight out of JFK (where our award ticket starts from).  Some might ask: "why wouldn't you just fly to JFK in the first place?"  Well, that would have been too easy…and through various shenanigans we saved $200 this way.

We had just a few hours to spend in New York (Lillie's first time in NYC!), so we just did the essentials.  And by that, we mean making a long anticipated visit to the Dosa Man in Washington Square Park.  We love dosa.  We love street food.  And for $5 it was all we dreamed it would be.  He was nice enough to give us two "environmental plates" for our shared dosa, so the photo shows just half of what your money gets you.

Dosa Man

Took a quick lap around Times Square in the Kia and then were off to JFK to catch our Finnair flight to Helsinki connecting onwards to Paris to visit our friends Jess and Wes.  I was a big fan of Finnair's business class—Lillie is more lukewarm (no storage space!).  It was a less than a month old A330—see the cabin here, so it was sparkling clean.  The beds are angled, but we both got some solid sleep in.  Lillie was seen crying watching Bride Wars on the IFE.

Here's what dinner looked like: cream of pumpkin soup, salad, grilled veggies, fillet of trout, julienne of vegetables, potatoes and lemon butter, and crème caramel.  All washed down with Baileys and Koff beer.  Airplane food is airplane food—but this was very much above average.

Starters Trout Baileys!

Had our flight landed on time in HEL, we had a plan to hit up a mall nearby for kicks.   But having to wait for thirty planes on the runway at JFK caused a bit of a delay so we just stuck out the layover at the IKEA-esque Silver Wings Lounge complete with little space pod chairs. 

Silver Wings Lounge

The short-haul to Paris was uneventful, but again a good performance from Finnair.  We hopped the train into Paris, where we now are and will be until noon tomorrow when we're off to Amman (via Madrid).  We'll post from Spain tomorrow should there be any excitement in France this evening.

Posts should hopefully start getting more interesting from here on…

Souffles, Souffles, Souffles

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A solid 22 hours in Paris...

After a much needed shower at Jess and Wes's, we hit the town.  Took a stroll around Luxembourg Park, drank some kir...

Lillie, Jess, and Kir

Then we had a 9pm reservation at Le Souffle, where we each had the three souffle tasting menu.  It was a lot of souffle.  Left to right you'll see the ham and cheese, blood sausage and apples, and a pistachio and chocolate dessert souffle.  Not pictured, but consumed, were cheese, spinach, wild boar, and a Grand Marnier dessert variety.  It was a lot of souffle.  But a tasty and fun experience with friends.

Ham 'n Cheez paris (3 of 4) Pistache

Next we hopped on bicycles (!!) at 11pm to cruise around the Louvre and back to Jess and Wes' 'hood.  It was a great delight to bang around on cobblestone roads and awesome to finally get some exercise.  The bikes were courtesy of the Velib' scheme.  Here are my attempts to capture the experience via iPhone while riding.

IMG_0034 photo(5) IMG_0038

After a pitcher of beer at O'Neils, Lillie and Jess headed home while Wes dragged me to his favorite haunt in all of Paris--Chez George.  You crawl down some stairs to what is quite literally a tiny cave packed with 40-ish Parisians drunkenly singing.  Wes said: "you want some wine?"  After an affirmative, he came back from the bar with a full bottle and two glasses.  Said bottle was then fully consumed.

A random dude we talked to claimed that Serge Gainsbourg used to hang out here back in the day.  We were skeptical, but that would be pretty awesome if true.  Further research must be done.

After going to bed at a very late hour, we were out the door at 9am for our next flights.  Big thanks go to Jess and Wes for their hospitality and putting up with us.  They've tempted us to maybe stay for a full day on our next trip to Paris.

We had an Iberia flight from Orly to Madrid--so we took the Metro to the RER B to the OrlyVal.  Very smooth and easy.  One lame point about Orly: the Iberia lounge is before the long security lines (and thus useless) so we didn't go in there.

IMG_0043 Short two hour flight to Madrid and it was the first Iberia flight attendant we've ever had that actually smiled and was nice.

The lunch actually really hit the spot, too.  Mesclum leaves salad with marinated king prawn, yellow cherry tomatoes, and courgette; fine herbs marinated chicken (which translated to fried dark meat and was awesome); brie/gouda; and white chocolate mousse

We're pressing the publish button on this from Madaba, Jordan right now.  Lots of missing hyperlinks in this post as Google.jo is proving to be a bit confusing.  So apologies for that.  Anyway, we got here late last night and now we're heading out to Dana Natural Reserve.  It'll be a few days until the next post, but we should hopefully have some decent material finally...

Arriving in Jordan

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(This post is pretty strictly logistics/boring)

Our Royal Jordanian flight attendants were pretty bored with us on MAD-AMM as we just weren't very demanding passengers.  They were ever vigilant and constantly waiting to get us something to drink other than water.  Even though it's a less than 5-hour flight, they treat it like a long haul--big leather reclining seats, multi-course meal service, and amenity kits.  Food was quite average, but they make up for it in every other regard.  Great airline for when you're in this region.

Chicken Vegetable Soup Penne Pasta and Veggies Almond Tart and Coffee

Upon arrival, we swapped some USD for JOD (dinars) in order to buy the 10 JOD visas for entry.  There are no ATMs at this point in the airport and you must pay in dinars.  Not a fast process, but easy.  Our bags survived yet another transit and were already on the carousel after we crossed immigration.

Booked an automatic via hertzjordan.com, and a rep from Hertz was waiting with a sign.  Signed some paperwork, and we were off to Madaba for our first night.  First song we found on the radio was Kelis' Milkshake.  Really weird.  Anyway, easy highway driving and we eventually arrived at Mariam Hotel (booked directly through their website) a bit after midnight.  For 40 JOD including a breakfast buffet, this is a perfectly fine little hotel.

We left the hotel around 9:00am, loaded up with dinars at an ATM in Madaba, and then began the 3-hour drive to Dana Nature Reserve...

Dana Nature Reserve

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After much deliberation, we decided that Wadi Rum in southern Jordan was a bit too touristy for our nature tastes.  So instead we spent a day based at Rummana Campground in Dana Nature Reserve.  The tagline for the organization running this place is "Helping Nature. Helping People."  No brainer for us.

It wasn't particularly cheap, but it was acceptable given the social project you're in turn supporting.  A night in a tent, dinner/breakfast, water, and a guided hike was 140 JOD.  This was all booked directly with them via email.  They were very prompt and helpful with their responses, too.

Upon arriving, we parked our car at the Visitor's Center and then took this shuttle down the very, very steep road to the permanent campground.

Upon arrival at the camp, we threw our stuff down and then went with a guide on the 8km White Dome trail to the village of Dana.  It was about 3.5 hours in the blazing midday sun (morning would be the ideal time to do this).  A guide is required for this hike, but there are a few shorter hikes around the camp that can be done self-guided.  Great views of the Dana Valley and Wadi, though terrible photos as it was blazing hot and hazy. 

The hike ends at Dana Village where local women grow sage, thyme, nuts, pomegranates, apricots, etc. in a large garden.  It smells wonderful and gave us access to a pool of very chilly water running down from the mountain - incredibly refreshing after hours in the sun.  Their jams and dried herbs are available for sale at the Tourist Center and were used in our meals at the Camp.

Back at camp we unpacked a little and cleaned up.  The accommodations are really quite amazing considering the harsh location.  And all sparkling clean.

You can easily stand up in the middle of the tents, and the linens are fresh and wrapped in plastic for each new arrival.

Who doesn't love open air bathrooms with trees in them?  The bathroom facilities were super impressive.

There's a little man-made pool and bird shed behind the campground to hang out in.  Sadly, we don't have good IDs on some of these, but we'll look them up when back home.  However, these guys below are the Palestine Sunbird:

Again, a very great place to spend some time.  The staff was typically Jordanian (read: amazingly nice), the views fantastic, and very quiet (only two other people there the same night as us).

Here's a candid of us:

First Day at Petra

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About 80 km south on the Kings Highway from Dana is Petra.  Along the way, we picked up a hitchhiker.  Not our usual routine, but he was standing at a police checkpoint where we stopped.  And when somebody asks you "are you going to Petra?" on the road to Petra, there aren't a whole lot of excuses.  So no big deal in the end.

Again we timed our arrival perfectly for the hottest part of the day (around 1pm).  We purchased 2-day tickets for 26 JOD each and headed for the entry gate.  Trying to keep it real, we've stuck with long pants while in Jordan.  But upon entering Petra, we quickly learned the uniform for tourists here is short shorts and long white socks.  Duly noted.

The size of Petra is really staggering.  Throw in the weather conditions, and you really need to be smart and selective about what you attempt to see and do.  We're not going to get into all the history here, as that's a bit above our pay grade.  So here's the wikipedia entry if you need a primer.  Or rent Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

You enter Petra via the Siq, a narrow gorge, and after about 30-minutes of walking you end up with this in your sights:

 

That's the peek-a-boo view of the Treasury.  After emerging from the Siq completely, here it is in all its glory:

We then went the High Place of Sacrifice route looping down into Wadi Farasa and back to the main street.  It's a pretty healthy climb to the top, where the Nabateans performed religious ceremonies--likely including human sacrifices  Here's a view down:

We bumped into a dozen or so tourists up here, but then only saw one other tourist on the rest of the loop.  There are no directional signs at Petra, so unless you have your own guide book (we were using the Rough Guide) you really don't have a prayer of finding things off the main tourist track.

Plenty of Bedouins living down in Wadi Farasa with small gift tables, though.  You can see some of their goats hanging out here:

The below triclinium was one of our favorites.  Incredibly colorful and unique in that interiors were otherwise never carved.  There was crown molding on the ceiling and totally straight etchings around the windows.  Just amazing.

 

This is the view from the triclinium across to the Roman Soldier Tomb:

The Renaissance Tomb:

The Broken Pediment Tomb:

Five plus hours later we were back in the car and headed to our hotel to check-in.  We stayed at the Golden Tulip Kings Way Petra.  I got a pretty fantastic rate of $45 here thanks to an overly generous (and now expired) promotion from hotelclub.net.  It's supposed to be one of the nicer hotels in Petra, but it's definitely getting old and tired.  Though it absolutely served it's purpose.  If you don't have a car or aren't on a tour bus, there's no reason to stay here as it's a few km away from the main gate to Petra.

We relaxed here for a bit before heading out at 7:30pm for dinner.  We went to Red Cave on the tourist road outside the entry gate, and it was surprisingly good food.  Finally got to eat some of the lamb we've seen running around everywhere.

Then we went to Petra by Night at 8:30pm.  Two days per week, they light candles all down the Siq and around the Treasury.  You are ushered to a mat and served hot tea during a short performance of Bedouin music.  It's worth going to if you're there, but it's also super corny.  It's 12 JOD per ticket and you can buy these tickets at the Petra Visitors Center--all the guide books seem to say you need to buy them from some specific tourist agencies, but that's absolutely not the case.  Plus we purchased ours right before eating dinner that same night.

Here's a long exposure of the Treasury at night:

Second Day in Petra – The Last Crusade

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No breakfast at the hotel today, so we hit up a local bakery for a plate of baklava for breakfast.  Inappropriate but delicious.

This time at Petra we switched things up by not entering via the Siq.  Right before the Siq we took a right into Wadi Muthlim, disregarding the warning sign posted that suggests you take a guide down this route.  Pshaw.  Instead of sharing the Siq with hordes of other tourists, we had this thing all to ourselves.

Of course, there proved to be a few obstacles along the route which is otherwise simple to navigate.  Take for instance this:

 

That one really wasn't a big deal, but it did crack us up when we first caught a glimpse.  The next obstacle proved to be a much better story.  This route is prone to flash floods during the spring time, so is impassable during that time.  We got to experience some of the aftermath from said floods.

Sidd Majjn is the junction where we bumped into two other pairs of tourists.  One pair threw in the towel and headed home.  Here's what we were first faced with:

If you squint a little, you can see the brown pool of water in the path ahead.  It was at this point that a random Bedouin guy came by and nicely grunted/pointed the way along.  I first attempted some Spiderman action to avoid taking the plunge in the murky water.  But in the end, we just had to suck it up.

Luckily it was only knee deep water.  The random Bedouin was clutch later when pointing us to a shortcut that helped us avoid at least 100 more feet of this wading.

Good times in the end!  And what these pictures don't capture are the rock carvings on the walls above.  This is where Lillie insisted she really felt like Indiana Jones while admiring/wading.  Then we were finally in Wadi Mataha that eventually lead us back to the main street.  This little route took us a shade under two hours while we were usually doing the Siq in 30 minutes.  A shortcut it isn't!

Back on the main drag, the Monastery was our remaining sight for the day.  It's about an hour slog up many, many steps (we've now reached mid-day again, of course, so the sun was a-blazin').  You think you're in the middle of nowhere until you arrive at this:

 

There's actually a really nice cafe up here--complete with ice cold Coke for 2 JOD.  On a scorching hot day they were doing brisk business.  Lillie made friends with some 60-something Catalan men on the trail.  She had fun name dropping things from her year in Catalunya, and these dudes loved her.  For some reason, they asked the two of us to pose for a picture.  Would love to see that slideshow.  Those guys held back our pace a bit, but otherwise we were down to the bottom in thirty minutes.

We then took off for the exit through the Siq for the last time.  Another five-hour day at Petra in the books.  Awesome stuff.

Floating in the Dead Sea

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After leaving Petra, we drove north back to Tafileh and then west towards the Dead Sea Highway.  While descending towards the Dead Sea, we watched the temperature gauge in the car climb a full ten degrees Celsius.  Things settled in the 100 to 104 F range. 

At a police checkpoint (these are all over and standard procedure), the officer was excited to hear we were Americans and invited us to join him for tea.  As mentioned above, it was over 100 degrees and we politely declined.

The Dead Sea highway is a snap to drive--you can just cruise at 100 km/h on a straight road.  After about 3 hours from Petra, we arrived at Amman Beach.  For 12 JOD/person, they provide some nice access to a beach.  The men's changing room was pretty dank, but Lillie reports the women's to not be too bad.  There are also swimming pools and a cafe, but we didn't partake in any of that.  So it's a bit pricey for just a dip in the sea, but oh well.

Anyway, we were all business from the changing rooms and raced to the water--the weather was absolutely stifling.  It was pretty much as advertised.  You bob like a cork.  This was especially weird for me as a person prone to drowning.  We both had some chapped lips which were quickly burning thanks to the salt.  But my Chacos did get nice and clean after getting super mucky at Petra.

Floating in the Dead Sea

Then back on the highway and off to live it up in our nicest hotel in Jordan (possibly nicest of the trip)--Le Meridien Amman...

Driving in Amman

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Driving had been a breeze throughout Jordan, but it was only on the last night and following day that we had to navigate the streets of downtown Amman.  Oh my.

It's kinda like New York City driving, but take away the lane lines and all the other rules of the road you take for granted.  Basically, if you see room for your car to go...ya go.  Eventually got that hang of it, but it had its hairy moments, no doubt.  The biggest trouble is that our map situation for the city was garbage, so general navigating was unnecessarily difficult.  We've always bought maps from Amazon in the past, not sure why we didn't this time.

After much nonsense driving, we finally got to the Le Meridien Amman at 8pm.  I scored a sweet rate on a Royal Club Room there that included breakfast, 4pm checkout, free internet, and free drinks in their club lounge.  Racked up lots of Starwood points for the stay in the process, too.  This proved to be a very cozy place to hang out after a few days cooking in the sun.

Le Meridien Amman

Our big project after breakfast the next morning was to find a place to do some laundry (the hotel's pricing was just off the charts silly for a big load).  After a chat with the concierge, we fast learned that Jordanians don't do self-laundromats, but he pointed us to a dry cleaner a ten minute walk away.  This all worked out quite well, albeit much more expensive than we'd have liked.  We had to pay a 50% rush charge which brought our total to 44 JOD.  But now we have non sweat and sand drenched clothing for the East Africa portion of our trip.

Hertz Jordan gets a big thumbs down for pointing out a scratch on the car and proceeding to charge me 60 JOD for it.  First time this has ever happened to us, so we'll see if our friends at Amex can help us out when we get back home.

And it was while processing this annoying paperwork at Hertz Jordan that we were about to hit another speed bump along the way...

Hot Travel Tip for the Day

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Don't arrive at 4:05pm for the flight you think leaves at 5:45pm, but in fact leaves at 4:15pm.  Ooops!

It only took a solid four hours for Team Royal Jordanian at the Amman airport to get us boarding passes for the later 10pm flight to Tel Aviv.  We dealt with no less than ten people to get this sorted out.  Early in the process a check-in agent said: "you're going to Addis Ababa, yeah?"  While Ethiopia is pretty high on our travel list, Entebbe is our actual destination this time.

We spent a little time in the "Departure Manager's office" in the back of the airport through this episode.  This is where all sorts of angry passengers stormed in yelling in Arabic while Lillie and I sat in the corner with big grins on our faces, completely amused.  The Departure Manager at one point said to Lillie in English: "This man comes to me with no passport trying to get onto his international flight.  Do you see what I have to deal with all day?"  All of the requests seemed equally ridiculous with very unrelenting hopeful passengers.  Needless to say, we didn't yell once. 

The whole episode appropriately concluded with the ticketing agent saying "what the hell is the deal with this ticket?!" while handing us our boarding passes.  Smiles all around and we shook hands with a big thank you.  The downside to missing our original flight is that we missed our reservation at Eucalyptus in Jerusalem.  We were pretty pumped about that meal, so we'll save that for next time.

The pretty new Crown Club lounge at Amman is quite nice, by the way.  Got some lentil soup and drank some 7-Up.  Nicest feature of the place are little individual TV cubicles.  There's also a snooker table if you fancy that.  Plus don't forget to check out the family portrait of King Abdullah and Queen Rania by the entrance.  Decent place to spend a few unexpected hours at ol' Queen Alia International.

Crown Club at AMM

And just to explain a bit, in order to get from Jordan to Uganda our routing was forced to be rather horrible.  So now we're at the beginning of a long trek through many airports.

Transiting Tel Aviv

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We came off our flight from Amman and followed the transit passenger signs only to end up in a completely empty baggage claim area with a security section all closed up.  There was a phone on the wall and a sign with a number for transiting passengers to dial.  I called, briefly explained where we were coming from/going, and the woman said they'd be right down. 

Next thing you know, we had seven people down there tending to the two of us: two airport employees, two baggage screeners, two security agents, and a Malev agent to check us in for our onward flight to Budapest.  The security questions were relatively tame (how long have you been married being the only personal one), and everyone seemed to get a big kick out of our trip and itinerary.

The whole process took about 70 minutes.  One upside to having not gone to Jerusalem is that now our passports do not have Israel stamps. We can keep our travel options in the Middle East open for the last 8 years of our passports' lives.  Lots of possibilities…

We spent the layover in the Dan lounge to try to get a few hours of sleep before the next flight.  Not terribly successful at that as they insisted on playing a horrible soundtrack over the loudspeaker.  Below is Lillie getting her Facebook on via iPhone.  You know we're in Israel because if you squint you can see a dude's yamika over her left shoulder.

At the Dan lounge in TLV

A Few Hours in Budapest

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If there was a flight on our itinerary that we had exceptionally low expectations for, it was Malev Hungarian from TLV-BUD.  It didn't disappoint.  I won't bag on them too much as they are essentially a bankrupt airline, but the breakfast was horrible (I don't even want to post the photo!) and the service spotty.  They got us to Budapest a few minutes early, so in the end that's all that really matters on a flight like this.  The one highlight was the flight attendant randomly talking to Lillie in Hungarian when we first got on the flight (Lillie's roots are in Hungary, or a fourth of them, at least).

With five hours before our next flight we hopped the 200E bus to Kobanya Kispest and then transferred to the M3 train to Deak Ferenc—290 Forint for each leg of the journey that took 45 minutes each way in total.  Very easy and a fraction of the price of a taxi.

At 9am the weather was absolutely beautiful and we roamed around for two hours before heading back to the airport.  Here's the first building/sign seen upon coming out of the subway station:

Ford Tough

We stopped at a small coffee shop and grabbed some snacks to eat in the park.  Lillie's parents whip up a tastier version of the bottom pastry for the Gerencser family reunion each year.

SONY DSC

Walked down to the Danube…

Danube

We saw the below street sign in several places.  Anybody have an idea what it means?  Men in top hats shouldn't solicit children to hold hands with them?

Weird Sign 

Budapest was an incredibly quiet city.  And by that we mean we saw lots of people, but nobody was talking. Or maybe they were whispering.  It was quite odd and quite pleasant at the same time.  This sense of peace could also be a result of missing the constant car horn blaring of Amman. 

Back at the Budapest airport we checked out Malev's Millennium Lounge before our British Airways flight to Heathrow.  Keeping with the Malev spirit, it was kind of terrible.  Horrible chairs and Pepsi products.  Nuff said. 

SONY DSC

The independently run Platinum Lounge across the hall is the much better option (both accessible to BA passengers in business class).

En Route to Uganda

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We're currently killing time in the Galleries Club at T5 in Heathrow (this club is top notch--just ate some ice cream).  We board our flight to Entebbe in a couple hours and then our internet access takes a nose dive for a bit.

I think our hotel in Ruhengeri, Rwanda on May 24 will have some internets.  If so, we hope to deliver a photo or two from our first visit with the mountain gorillas of Nkuringo that happens on May 23 in Uganda.

Gotta run for our massages at the Elemis Travel Spa here in the lounge, now.  Until later...

Arriving in Uganda and Driving to Kisoro

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Full house in business class on the BA flight to Entebbe.  Very good flight attendants, average food, and a decent night's sleep in the older 767 Club World seats.  So no big complaints, really.

Lamb Chops Fruit, Tea, and a Fruit Smoothie

On arrival we purchased visas for $50 USD each and were then relieved to find our bags on the carousel.  I was concerned they wouldn't do well transiting all those airports with us.  We had a bit of a snafu with our airport pickup, but we eventually got things sorted out, losing about an hour in the process.  For anyone arriving in Entebbe, there are loads of banks and cell phone shops after exiting baggage claim.

Following all these flights, we had a quite long drive to our first destination of Kisoro, Uganda.  It's about 500km and with the road conditions this was about 9 hours driving.  Ugandans are apparently quite good at cramming many people into their cars:

Full House

Two points that somewhat surprised us about Uganda initially.  (1) the main roads are in worse condition than Madagascar's.  Never thought such a thing was possible!  (2) the landscape is more stunning than we could have ever thought.  Coming out from the clouds on British Airways we were immediately taken aback by just how GREEN the land was.  Then as we started passing food stalls on the road, we realized the farms are producing a huge variety of fresh produce (everything you can imagine from pineapple to avocados to sorghum).  We'll attempt to capture these points in photos further down the road...

We made the obligatory stop en route at the Equator.  We also passed through the Equator precisely a year ago while in the Galapagos, so we're vets at that.

OMG

For lunch we stopped in Mbarara at City Top Restaurant.  I found a tip somewhere online about this Indian restaurant run by some brothers from Tamil Nadu (my family's 'hood).  Definitely recommended as a change of pace from eating at tourist hotels.  Below is what parothas (very good) and "meat roast" (turns out to be lamb gravy--my mom's is better) shakes out to.

City Top Restaurant

After lunch and many more hours, the road eventually brought us to Kisoro where we stayed at the Traveller's Rest Hotel.  Maybe a tad pricey for some at $120 USD for full board, but we loved our stay here and I can't imagine a better place in this town.  It's managed by a Dutchman and watched over be a friendly brother/sister pair of Rottweilers.  All three of them were great to spend time with.

Traveler's Rest Hotel

Nice, clean, and big room (this is the Mutanda room we stayed in).  And there's even scalding hot, solar-heated showers if you fancy.

Mutanda Room

The food was phenomenal.  The menu below might seem silly for a a small village in southwest Uganda, but consider that it's all made with very local and fresh ingredients and it was simply delicious.  Plus breakfasts feature honey made from the local bees.

Traveler's Rest Dinner Menu

So after a night's rest, the following day would be what we really came on this trip for.  Mountain Gorillas...

Nkuringo Mountain Gorillas Teaser

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Adorable Nkuringo Infant

While the photography was frustrating, the first day's gorilla tracking of the Nkuringo group in Uganda was a great success.  We even got a few keeper photographs.  Most importantly, it was just an unbelievable and memorable experience overall.  We've had some thrilling wildlife sightings the past couple years, but seeing a few of these 700 remaining beauties in their natural habitat easily takes the cake.

We're posting this from Musanze, Rwanda (formerly called Rugengeri), whereabouts today we'll spend another hour with a different group of mountain gorillas.  And it's also where the internet bandwidth is limited and thus photo uploading slow.  So this is regrettably all we will provide for now!  We'll be at the Sheraton Kampala in two days and I hear they have one of the fastest connections in East Africa.  If so, I'll be putting it to the test...

So please do check back soon!  We hope to make it worthwhile for the majority of you who don't care for airplane food photos...

Home

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Zizou and the Fox

We just got home at 8am today and Ziz already has his new friend from Kyoto (a fox from Fushimi Inari) with him on the couch.

Apologies for the lack of posts from the road.  We assure you it was all for good reason.  We were actually out doing stuff and not just sitting in airports like we initially were on the trip.

Starting tomorrow morning our updates from Uganda, Rwanda, and Japan will start streaming out…

Tracking the Nkuringo Mountain Gorillas

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Email and RSS subscribers will likely need to click over to klugusamy.com to view the below photos--sorry 'bout that.

We had breakfast at the dark hour of 5:30am and were in the Land Cruiser at 6:00am for the bumpy 1.5 hour drive up to Nkuringo from Kisoro.  At 7:30am we were at the Uganda Wildlife Authority's little "headquarters".  The main gorilla tracking operation in Uganda is in Buhoma, so this little outstation very much reflected that it's an outstation.

No matter, we soon found out we were the lone tourists for the day.  Nice!  (more on this lack of traffic at the bottom*)  Lillie and I each hired a porter (~10 USD) to carry our packs and we set off with our guide, the porters, and two guys with guns.  Funny that we never even wondered why these guys had guns, at the time.  Gun = African walking stick, some say.  In reality, they are to scare off angry elephants or buffalos that might be encountered along the way.

To get to the mountain gorillas at Nkuringo, it's a quite steep initial downhill climb.  Fortunately for Lillie, the Ugandan Porters feel very much so obliged to your safety throughout the trek.  Godfrey carried her backpack but also held her hand on any steep, slippery sections of the non-trail.  From there, it depends on where the gorillas are hanging out.  We've heard that it can get quite strenuous getting to this group, but we were fortunate.  Less than an hour, and we had arrived.

Just before you get to the gorillas, you meet up with the trackers and are required to drop your packs and take only what you need on your body (no food or water allowed).  This is to ensure no gorillas go running away with your lunch box (amongst other things).  Then we proceeded with two park rangers to spend an hour with these mountain gorillas.  There are 19 members of this group--including six month old twins!

Instead of the usual long scroll through inline photos, I'm giving an embedded slideshow a whirl below.  You'll need Flash, but otherwise please leave a comment if you have any troubles viewing.

 

It was still early in the morning and most of the group were just getting up and eating breakfast.  We stayed in pretty much the same position for the hour while the entire group went about their business immediately surrounding us.  Seven meters is the official line on the distance you keep.  In reality, the mountain gorillas are unaware of this rule. 

As mentioned previously, taking photos was pretty tricky.  You're in a dense jungle with low light and there is always a blade of grass or leaf in the way of your shot.  On some of the photos above you'll see what looks like lots of brown dust on the lens--those are actually dense clusters of flies.

An hour passes pretty fast.  Time flies when you're having fun, I guess.  It was hot and horribly humid (for us) on the steep climb back up.  We charged up at a very speedy pace and were back to the station in an hour.  The rangers complimented us for being "very strong".  We would have stopped for more breaks had we known that was the impression we gave.  Less than three hours roundtrip, in the end.  But that's very much a "your miles may vary" situation.

We drove back to Kisoro to eat the packed lunch we didn't get a chance to eat while tracking.  We got the "you're already back?" from everyone at Traveler's Rest Hotel.  Speaking of which, they make a very nice packed lunch for this occasion.  We sat in their garden watching the birds and Rottweilers play before retiring to our room for a nap.

Happy to say it was a tremendous experience, and worth all the money and travel required.  And it was great knowing we would give it another go in Rwanda in two days...


*Some commentary on Nkuringo.  From what we gather, this outstation is being horribly mismanaged.  There are eight permits per day available and six of the permits are allocated to Clouds Mountain Resort--a $900/night lodge nearby.  The existence of this lodge is insane.  I can't imagine anyone paying that kind of money to stay at a lodge that requires a quite bumpy road of more than three hours from Kabale to reach.  Plus, I can't imagine people paying that much money being interested in enduring what is a very strenuous trek to reach to the gorillas.

To these points, it seems nobody is staying at this lodge.  Thus partly explaining why there were only the two of us tracking the group that day.  On the flip side, I'd say this is an excellent opportunity for some travelers to take advantage of.  It was quite a luxury having the gorillas all to ourselves!  On a sad note, I think USAID was involved with funding some of this madness.  I'll do some research on that another day.

Birding on Lake Mutanda

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Email and RSS subscribers will need to click over to klugusamy.com to view the below photos--sorry 'bout that.

Baker (our fantastic driver) hooked us up with Gerald, a Kisoro resident who knows his birds.  We paid him about $40 USD for 5+ hours of hiking and birding around Lake Mutanda.  This turned out to be a really great little side trip that wasn't on our itinerary.

Lake Mutanda

We hopped out of the car and started the walk down towards the lake.  Lots of birds along the way.  Below is a selection with IDs in the captions (please post a comment if you spot any we've misidentified - certainly possible).  One bummer is that we somehow only saw Crested Cranes from a long distance on two occasions.  We went into the trip thinking we'd be tripping all over these guys.  (They are Uganda's bald eagle)

 

We also met here the Kisoro Parrots.  These were young kids yelling "How are you!" (notice the exclamation point and not question mark) and "Give me money!"  To that one, Gerald told me to respond right back with "Give me money!".  This only seemed to cause confusion, however.

We were a bit off the beaten path here, so these kids aren't seeing a whole lot of Muzungu (foreigners) and we were thus a big novelty.  Our group of three often swelled to ten or more when a troop of kids would start following.  We've got a pretty strict 'no photos of people' policy, but since these kiddos were begging to have their photos taken, we were happy to oblige. 

 

Another fun part of this side trip was riding a dug out canoe across the lake.  We paid about $5 to a local guy for a pleasant 45 minute paddle.  Even while in the middle of the lake we could hear the Kisoro Parrots yelling our direction.  Here's the chariot we cruised in:

Canoein'

Back in the car around 2:30pm, we headed back into Kisoro for a late lunch.  We gave some local food a whirl--goat (me), scrawny chicken (Lillie), with rice, matoke and ugali.  Not too shabby and only about $3.

This is the goat variety.  It was goaty.

After lunch, we made the less than two hour drive across the border down to Musanze, Rwanda.  This would be the jumping off point for our next gorilla tracking outing...

(This post is mostly about travel particulars, so likely quite boring to those not planning such a trip.  Just fair warning...)

Crossing borders by land in Africa is always a potential treasure trove of stories.  (Our highlight being an immigration official in Kasika, Namibia not being there, and having to be rounded up from the bar to come down and stamp our passports.)

This wasn't terribly exciting, but the ridiculous amount of paperwork and bureaucracy is always amusing.  We first went to a little shed with a Ugandan police officer who took down our information.  We told him our professions were "marketing" and "HR".  He didn't seem to believe that these were real jobs, but he didn't press us.  He then gave us a tiny piece of scrap paper with his initials on it to take to Immigration. 

At Ugandan Immigration we filled out our departure cards, turned in our previously acquired scraps of paper, and quickly had our exit stamps in our passport.

While Baker was handling all the paperwork to bring the car into Rwanda, we walked over to Rwanda to get our entry stamp there.  A little tip if you're making this walk: don't take a shortcut in the grass.  Stick to the road.  The Rwandan police politely summoned us to explain that the grass is not to be used for border crossing.  Lesson learned.  Americans get a free Visa on arrival in Rwanda, so we filled out our arrival cards and were quickly good to go.

As mentioned before, our driver handled all the paperwork for the car at the border.  But here are some details on that to give you an idea of the costs involved.  You need a Cart D'Entree that cost us 15,000 Rwandan Francs.  And you'll also need to buy some car insurance which set us back 10,040 Rwandan Francs.  So about $45 USD.

Money in Rwanda is sorta odd.  ATMs there don't accept foreign cards, so with Baker's assistance we did some ForEx at the border for some Rwandan Francs to last us a day.  We probably lost like $5 due to a shoddy rate, but it worked for the given situation.

The first things we noticed as we started driving in Rwanda: (1) they drive on the "right" side, (2) they have very nicely paved roads, (3) their roads are very narrow, (4) there are ditches next to the road/no sidewalks for people, and (5) the roads seem even narrower due to the hordes of people walking six abreast on them.  Baker did not seem to appreciate Rwanda giving pedestrians the right of the road.  His speed was also quite curbed from Uganda.

We elected to stay in Musanze, which is less than 30-minutes from the Parc de Volcans headquarters that is the morning meeting place for gorilla tracking in Rwanda.  There are many options closer to the park headquarters, but for $65 USD we got a brand new, clean room with a decent enough wifi connection and DSTV at the Virunga Hotel.  I painlessly booked directly with them via email.

The downsides to staying here were that street noise late at night can be a bit loud, and we also learned that since they don't really cater to gorilla tourists, their concept of a packed lunch was quite poor, but the wifi was really great!  Plus the view from the room wasn't too shabby:

View from Virunga Hotel

One quirk about the room: can anybody explain if it's possible to shower in a shower without a shower curtain and not drench the rest of the bathroom?

Wet Bathroom

We went for dinner at the Tourist Rest Hotel where we found a buffet.  It reminded me of the Vegas Vacation line: "Best buck forty-nine boofet in town."  However this buffet was closer to $2.99.

There was a menu laying on the table and Lillie for some crazy reason made the assumption that just because something was on the menu that they actually served said item.  She asked for some chocolate crepes for dessert.  After much consultation amongst the staff, they agreed they could make it.  Twenty five minutes later (after a trip to the store?) they brought out the crepes.

Can't imagine there are too many culinary gems in Musanze, so this place was definitely fine.  And the staff very nice.

We obviously would have had a more peaceful and tranquil experience staying outside of town and nearer the park.  But we found it to be a nice little change of pace staying in town.  Also the price was attractive to us. 

Tracking the Group 13 Mountain Gorillas

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Email and RSS subscribers will need to click over to klugusamy.com to view the below photos--sorry 'bout that.

After a 6am breakfast at the Virunga Hotel, we headed over to Parc des Volcans headquarters in Kinigi, the meeting place for gorilla tracking.  The facilities at this place were exactly the opposite of Nkuringo's.  This was also the first time on this portion of the trip we encountered hordes of tourists.  It was a full house for gorilla tracking here with lots of tour groups present.  We were blown away by all these folks doing 60 and 90-day overland tours through Africa.

This time we'd have a full group of eight tourists, and we'd be tracking Group 13.  Groups are assigned a bit randomly on the day of, so you have little control, but this turned out to be a great group.  There are 28 gorillas in the once more accurately named Group 13.

(Coincidentally, on a later flight this trip we watched Natalie Portman and Jack Hannah track Group 13 in Saving a Species.)

After the initial orientation with our guides we hopped back into the car for a short 20-minute drive on a horrendous road to get to our starting point.  We walked a whopping one hour through very muddy farm fields until we were told we'd arrived.  Just like in Uganda, you drop your packs and only take what you need on your body (though a small camera bag is apparently acceptable).

We hopped over a five-foot stone buffalo wall and within a few minutes of bushwhacking had met the silverback.  Whereas with Nkuringo we basically stood in one place and watched all the gorillas surround us for the hour, here we were constantly moving as everyone in the group was very active.  Lots of scrambling through freshly bushwhacked trails to keep up.

One of the most amazing sights was the silverback climbing fifteen feet in the air to sit in some trees that then collapsed to the ground under his weight.  We sat watching him up there, listening to the cracking limbs, and waiting expectantly for the tumble.  The silverback wasn't fazed by the fall one bit, though.  It's dense enough rainforest that his fall was slowed by vines, bamboo, and other trees.  It was often hard to decide where to look as we were completely surrounded - both high and low - by this family of gorillas. 

Also memorable was a little guy who was just hamming it up for us.  He'd do a somersault, thump on his chest a la King Kong, and repeat.  Occasionally he'd also engage in some roundhouse kicks while playing with another infant.  Precious stuff.

Some of the better photos from the outing:

 

We were very glad to have seen the mountain gorillas twice and in two different locations.  They were completely different experiences.  This is obviously an expensive proposition, but definitely recommended if you can make it happen.  Also regarding bush-whacking: there was some ridiculous stinging nettle here, so covering up and wearing gloves can be a very good idea.  It's not like the stinging nettle we have here in Washington, either.  These leaves are as big as your open hand.

Once again, we were done in three hours.  This worked out nicely as we were driving back up to Uganda to Lake Bunyonyi afterwards.  As we were driving out on that horrendous road, a five year old boy ran along side the Land Cruiser for a few minutes (that's how slow we were driving) while waving and singing: "Bye bye Muzungu!  Bye bye Muzungu..." over and over and over...

I Left My Glasses at Lake Bunyonyi

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As much as I had gots to get them, I did not (if you're not hip to the reference).  These specs I left behind were a solid twelve years old and no doubt still fashionable, so it was a little sad to have accidentally left them behind.  Oh well, I just got back from Costco where I ordered some hopefully equally stylish glasses.

Anyway, after leaving the gorillas behind in Rwanda we made the three plus hour drive to Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda.  For the most part, it was mission accomplished on this leg of the trip.  We just had to make the drvie back up to Kampala/Entebbe for our flight out.

Border formalities were more of the same as previously.  The only bummer being that Uganda only does single-entry visas, thus we had to drop another $50 USD each to reenter Uganda.  (The Ugandan immigration guy told me we could get multi-entry visas from the Embassy before arrival, but they cost more than $200.  Not cost-efficient for our needs.)

There's Lake Bunyonyi in the distance en route:

We spent the night at Bunyonyi Overland Resort--at about $35 USD for the night it's very good value.  The rooms are rather tired (albeit clean), but the property is just outstanding.  The gardening is really first class.  This is a pathway along the lakeshore:

The food in the restaurant and service were also top class.  I had fresh crayfish from the lake while Lillie had a Hawaiian pizza (with a chapati serving as the crust).  I was initially critical of the Hawaiian pizza selection, but the pineapple we ate every morning in Uganda was always amazing and Lillie's logic quickly made sense.

Really nothing else to report here other than that this is a nice place to stopover, and to be on the lookout for my glasses if you pass through Cottage #5.  Otherwise, the most exciting thing we did here was lay in the putting green-like grass:

The Road to Lake Mburo National Park

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We bounced out of Lake Bunyonyi at 8am to start the five hour drive up to Kampala, where we'd spend our final night in Uganda.

On the way, we made a detour onto the road that leads to Lake Mburo National Park.  The idea was to catch a glimpse of some Burchell's Zebra and Eland.  Technically, you shouldn't be driving on this road unless you plan on continuing all the way to pay the park entrance fee.  So in theory, we were breaking the law here.  The upside is that we caught a glimpse of both of these guys, albeit from a pretty decent distance.

This photo is really horrible, but it at least shows both the zebra and the eland:

This was a nice little bonus treat as we'd never seen either of these guys before.  Also along this road, we got ice grilled by a water buck:

We stopped for lunch around Masaka where we ate a "rolex"--it's a rolled up chapati with an omelet inside.  Variations of this are a very popular street food in Uganda.  Very tasty.

Soon enough, after fighting the rather terrible city traffic, we were in Kampala checking in at the Sheraton for our final night...

Back to Kampala and Out of Uganda

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We used 4K Starwood points to stay at the Sheraton Kampala (excellent value, although it now costs 7K+).  We were booked into their lowest category "Classic" room, but thanks to SPG Gold status were upgraded to a "Superior" room on an upper SPG floor.  SPG Gold is pretty easy to acquire one way or another, and these little upgrades definitely keep us loyal. 

I was pumped about the free wireless internet available here, but then was less pumped to find it running at 4 kbp/s.  A nice room on the 9th floor, though it looked a bit neater at check-in:

Sheraton Kampala Room

At the same time, this hotel is a bit ridiculous with all the NGO peeps running around fighting poverty and such.  We mingled with them at dinner, where a Korean trio with a scantly clad female member sang slow jams like Desperado, and I mistakenly ordered a Mexicana Pizza.  (The first and only time I felt ill from food on this trip...an obviously stupid decision.)

We had grand plans of cleaning some clothes in Kampala.  With our time constraints this turned into a dead end.  The Sheraton wanted $10 for a single pair of pants, so that was a no go.  However, this Kwik Wash place could be a great asset for others.  We crossed our fingers we'd be able to figure out something at our next destination.

At 6:30am we started the 30+ minute drive (with no traffic) to the Entebbe airport for our 9am BA flight back to Heathrow.  Here we said farewell to Baker.  Great guy that we would recommend without any reservations (more on this later).

Lillie and Baker

At EBB, business class passengers get access to the Karibuni lounge after security.  I had very low expectations for this place and was blown away.  Big (and clean) leather couches everywhere, computers with a reasonable internet connection, and delicious samosas that we ate too many of for 8am:

Samosas!

The BA flight was just another BA flight, which is typically a good thing for us.  The only downside being the Club World seats on the 767s they send to EBB are in really dire condition.  Though there really aren't too many glamorous options otherwise, so no big deal.  (Had we paid full price, I might not be saying that.)

Just for the sake of completeness, our BA brunch (which wasn't all that amazing):

Salad of roast tomato and peppers topped with garlic and anchovy  Grilled tilapia with lemon garlic butter Marinated grilled chicken served on pesto risotto


Notes regarding the planning of the gorilla tracking portion of the trip:  I started by creating an itinerary that would allow us to track gorillas on both sides of the border.  This was shaped by various trip reports online, the Bradt guide, and the BA flight schedules since they only fly 3x per week.  All of this to achieve a nice balance in comfort with cost

My attempt to save some money had me booking things a bit a la carte.  I wanted to have total transparency into how much everything costs--I'm not a fan of the convenience that a single package price provides.  I arranged all our accommodations directly with the hotels via email.  For a car hire with driver and gorilla permits, I exchanged emails with different tour organizers from this Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) list.

In the end, I settled on Crystal Safaris because they answered emails promptly and were a simple $100/day for Land Cruiser and driver for five days, plus actual cost of permits.  We were responsible for paying for petrol along the way--this came out to $186.75.  We prepaid for the car and permits in advance via wire.

Considering the quality of Baker, I am supremely satisfied with the value received.  He was smart, punctual, anticipated any needs, funny, and spoke perfect English.  We are very picky people, and we would recommend Baker to everyone we know. 

Onwards to Kyoto, Japan

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There were definitely a few times at the end of our stay in Uganda where we were thinking: "We're going to Japan, next?"  Indeed. 

We had a nice and relatively short layover at Heathrow this time (3 hours).  By the time we did the T5 to T3 hokey pokey this was down to 2 hours.  We passed the rest of the time in the Japan Airlines Sakura Lounge—not that great of a lounge, but it was good to start consuming some Japanese beer and snacks.

Beer Nuts

This London to Tokyo flight was our longest of the trip thus far at about 11 hours flying time.  Sadly, their Shell Flat Seat was probably the weakest seat we've encountered (relatively speaking!).  Yeah, it's flat…but at a wicked angle.  Many hours of sleep were still achieved, though. 

For the meal service, I went Japanese and Lillie was soft and went Western.  First the Western meal. The starters (picture on the left) were: chicken liver and wild mushroom pate, prawn & gravlax, and a fresh salad with olive oil and balsamic dressing.  And the main dish is a fillet of beef with red wine and herb sauce.

Amuse Bouche Organic Australian fillet of beef steak served with herb flavor rich sauce made from red wine.  Accompanied by leek and potato gratin, sauteed spinach, and carrots.

The Japanese meal was the most elaborate airplane meal I've ever had.

Left to right in the izakaya style starters (picture on the left): tofu custard with crabmeat; fillet of sea-bass sashimi style; tuna sashimi with yam sauce; fired marinated small fish; Japanese noodle somen; grilled chicken Japanese style; deep-simmered vegetable; and sake-steamed whelk.

And the main course is braised Iberico pork with tofu custard; steamed Koshihikari rice; Japanese pickles; and miso soup.

Kobachi Dainomono

Before landing, we got our snacks on.  On the left is my Chinese ramen noodles in soy sauce flavor soup with Kagoshima pork fillet.  Lillie's tray on the right has Japanese udon noodles in soup with fried bean curd.

IMG_0070 IMG_0071

One of the main reasons we were going to Japan at the end of the trip was for the food, so this was all a nice way to kick things off.  Upon landing at Tokyo-Narita, we got our first glimpse of the surgical mask craze in Japan as we went through a health screening to ease concerns we had swine flu.  It was just a few yes/no questions, so no big deal and we had our free visas soon enough.

We had a short hour and a half layover here before our connection to Osaka-Itami that we spent at another JAL Sakura Lounge.  All sorts of awkwardness here as I was trying to make some green tea for myself.  Only to have an old Japanese women push me to the side and take over.  Watching her it was very clear that I was doing many things wrong and I was thankful for her intervention.

After a completely uneventful domestic flight to ITM, we landed at 6pm.  The next step was to hop onto the Airport Limo bus to Kyoto.  Within seconds of stepping up the automated ticket kiosks, we had tickets in our hands, and marveled at how easy it was.  Our fingers were crossed that everything would be this easy in Japan…

It's a 50-minute ride on the bus to Kyoto Station and it's very nice.  You'd almost think you're riding some light rail it's so quiet and smooth.

Once at Kyoto Station, our final destination was the Westin Miyako.  Only two subway trains to go to get there!  Like our previous bus tickets, this subway ticket machine was an equally pleasurable experience.  Very quickly we had two tickets to take us to the Keage station right next to the Westin.  We high fived as we walked into the hotel less than 90-minutes after landing at ITM.

We set out by foot randomly looking for food and fast realized there isn't a whole lot in the immediate area.  Then we stumbled on a 7-11 and grabbed some (what turned out to be delicious) little packaged dinners.  I also picked up a little guy of Haagen Dazs green tea ice cream to wash it down. 

Then back at the Westin late at night we started fighting jet lag for the first time on the trip…

Big First Day Roaming Kyoto

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In pre-trip planning for Kyoto, we came up with a rough list of things we wanted to do.  It provided a nice backbone for once we are on the ground to play things by ear with some ideas in our pocket.

The forecast for the day was thunderstorms.  The actual weather was blue skies and sunshine.  Simply beautiful.  We started the day by purchasing a 2-day bus/subway pass for 2,000 yen each.  Again, we had great success purchasing this from a machine without assistance.  The rest of the day was spent ping ponging around town on public transit—which was stunningly easy to navigate.

Highlights of the day were: doing laundry (!), four different temples and gardens, kaiten-zushi for lunch, fish chewing on our feet at a spa (!!), and tonkatsu for dinner.

It was a uniquely Japanese day—a nice day it was.  I'm going to group this first day up into common themes, rather than writing totally chronological.  To be honest, we simply aren't going to be able to maintain the same level of excitement as earlier reports on baby gorillas.  Regardless, hopefully you'll stick around for these last few dispatches, and find some nugget of entertainment value in them…

Laundry in Kyoto

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We've done the washing clothes in the sink thing in the past and just aren't sold on how "clean" your clothes really get.  So on this trip we decided we'd pay to have our clothes cleaned.  Unfortunately, we had terrible difficulty finding places to clean our clothes given our travel schedule.  Then when we did have time, we were staying at swankier hotels that wanted $10/pants.  No thanks.

We asked the concierge at the Westin Kyoto about the whereabouts of a coin laundry.  Our expectations were far-exceeded when she ran into a back office and came back with a nice pre-printed map.  (See said map here)

This laundromat was a treat and weirdly a highlight.  The sign alone was welcoming:

There was just enough English signage that we had no troubles operating the machines and we were out of there in less than an hour.  The only bummer was that we didn't have a pair of shoes handy to give this guy a spin:

Temples and Gardens

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The list of potential temples and gardens to visit in Kyoto is pretty ridiculous.  On our first day, we decided on: Kodaiji, Kiyomizu, Kinkakuji, and Ryoanji.  For some reason, I didn't take any photos at Kodaiji.  As for the rest:

Kiyomizu is a zoo.  Hordes and hordes of tourists (almost all Japanese) here.  From watching others have their photos taken at the entrance, this is apparently how you are supposed to pose:

Kinkakuji, the Golden Temple Pavilion, was stunning.

Ryoanji was one of our favorites—it's a Zen rock garden.  Due to some construction of the viewing platform, it was especially difficult to get a good photo.  Sitting and looking at 15 rocks and gravel might not be for everyone, but we quite enjoyed it.

We also caught a nice glimpse of a Great Blue Heron at Ryoanji.  We see these on just about every trip we go on (in North America, South America, and Africa), so it was nice to add this trip (and Asia) to that list.  Never gets old seeing this awesome bird.

Kaiten-Zushi

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We stumbled on one of these at a perfect time when we were starving.  It's right between Ryoanji and Kinkakuji and easy to spot.  Most everything on the menu/conveyor belt is 110 yen.  The food really wasn't that great here, but the experience was what it was all about.

Here's what our little booth looked like:

There is no reason to ever deal with a waiter here.  That black spigot looking thing spits out boiling water so you can mix up your own green tea.  Then you chuck your empty plates into the metal area in the bottom of the photo—which then tallies up how many plates you ate for billing purposes.

If you don't see what you want on the belt, just hop on your little touchscreen LCD:

Select what you want (and how many) and the order is sent to the kitchen.  When your item is about five feet away on the conveyor belt, your LCD screen starts going crazy alerting you to be ready to grab it.

This was the future.

Doctor Fish in Kyoto

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I don't know whose feet these are, but it pretty clearly illustrates what we did (no photos allowed where we were):

 Doctor Fish on random feet

This was a pretty unplanned venture.  We had heard and read about Doctor Fish, so we asked the concierge if there were any places in Kyoto that offered this.  The concierge immediately started laughing and said she'd done it before.  She hopped on the computer and gave us a printout with the below map to this place:

Where to go

Yeah, not a really helpful map if you don't know Japanese.  With the assistance of seven other Kyoto maps, we were able to triangulate this place to be at the Oitaguchi stop on the #11 bus.  This was an absolute shock we successfully made it here with no issues (lots of high fives).

Thanks to the printout, we were able to match the logo on the website to the logo on the front door:

As mentioned, there's no photography allowed inside this onsen.  And there's no English going on inside this place either.  After a 1,000 yen entry fee each, we got 15 minutes of foot soaking time with these dead skin eating fish for another 500 yen each.

Hard to say if our feet were in any better shape afterwards.  Can say that it tickles like none other.  Again, an awesomely unique Japanese experience.

We ended the night with delicious tonkatsu at Katsukura on the top of Kyoto Station.  Sad to not have photos of this meal as it was one of the best of the trip.  Breaded, deep-fried pork cutlets are always pretty good, but this was next level.

This concluded a solid 13+ hour day roaming Kyoto.  We were happy to tuck ourselves into the Heavenly Bed at the Westin…

Checking Out From the Westin Miyako Kyoto

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I'm pretty loyal to the Starwood program if you can't tell, so we spent two nights at the Westin Miyako Kyoto to start the Japanese portion of our trip.  I had a pretty decent rate for the first night and a cash and points stay for the second night.  As usual, we got bumped up a room category to a much larger room thanks to SPG Gold status.

We are very messy

Nice enough view from the window:

The best part of the room was this, though:

It's very important to always know where the STOP button is…

The Heavenly Bed did it's job on our second night here—we barely made our 1pm late checkout.  The jet lag and exhaustion from the trip had finally caught up with us.  This day was pretty squandered, but our bodies weren't going to let us have it any other way.

Our only real accomplishment for the day was checking out a 100 yen shop.  It was a bit disappointing in that there was nothing "weird" there.  Just about everything was rather nice and super practical.  We came out of there with some chopsticks.

Tired from not doing anything all day, we threw in the towel at 5pm and popped over to where we'd spend our final night in Kyoto…

Kikokuso Ryokan

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Kikokuso Outside

For this last night in Kyoto, we stayed in a traditional Japanese guest house.  I can't imagine having made a better pick than Kikokuso.  This place is run by a completely adorable husband and wife team.  Up until last year you'd also be greeted by their Shiba Inu named Gonta.  There is a small memorial to Gonta when you enter, and there's no doubt that his presence would have made the place just a bit more perfect.

The courtyard garden was impressive.  This ability to turn the smallest of spaces into such beautiful gardens is just amazing.

An iPhone shot of the Japanese bath.  This bath was pretty cool—when you flipped the faucet for more water, it would come dribbling out of the rock wall.  I love a boiling hot shower, but I found myself suffocating in this total body heat.

Caliente!

The beds at these ryokans are simple futon mattresses on the floor.  After you wake up, the staff quickly rolls them back up until its bedtime again.  As a result, I missed that photo-op.  So this is what our room looked like after clean up:

Just like the Westin room, the toilet was again the star of the room.  After you flush the toilet, there's a sink on top for a quick hand wash with the water that's heading into the bowl.

Ingenius!  Don't be surprised to see this in our guest bathroom someday…

Remember how we said the owners were adorable?  They gave us this postcard when we left.  Brilliant.  Without knowing Gonta the dog…we rather miss him, too! 

Gonta's House

Kaiseki at Kikokuso

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Email and RSS subscribers will need to click over to klugusamy.com to view the below photos--sorry 'bout that.

As great as the toilet was, the kaiseki dinner and breakfast are what we were really excited (and nervous) about.  The husband half of the team does all the cooking while his wife served us in this private dining room adjacent to the garden:

Every single course of dinner was delicious and beautifully presented.  Many items were things we'd never seen or heard of before, but that didn't get in the way of the taste.  Neither of us wasted a single bite.

Here's a slideshow with the full course.  Pardon the vague captions, but it's honestly the best we know!

 

While not quite as elaborate, breakfast was a continuation of dinner.  Waffles it ain't, but delicious again.  Another slideshow:

 

As you might guess, these meals were not particularly cheap.  They were a really outstanding and classy way to wrap up our trip, though.  When in Kyoto and thereabouts, everyone should budget on a splurge like this.